Credibility problems? Check.
Finger-pointing? You betcha
We have an oil problem on our hands, and it has nothing to do with renewable energy and carbon emissions.
When experts convened recently at the 104th annual meeting of the American Oil Chemists’ Society, there was heated debate over what to do about olive oil. Even though concerns over poor quality, mislabeling and outright fraud surfaced a few years ago, olive oil continues to be plagued with credibility issues, even as it finds its way into more American homes and countries around the globe attempt to set quality-control standards. The state of extra-virgin olive oil — which is extracted from olives via mechanical means, not chemicals or heat — has been particularly controversial. While some industry insiders insist that stories of rampant adulteration are greatly exaggerated, others beg to differ.
Among the conference participants was Dan Flynn, executive director of the Olive Center at the University of California at Davis, who a few years earlier had assessed the quality of extra-virgin olive oils in supermarkets based on standards set (but not enforced) by the U.N.-chartered International Olive Council as well as two additional chemical criteria. Shockingly, he found that 69% of imported olive-oil samples and 10% of California samples failed to meet sensory standards such as having more than zero fruitiness and not being rancid. Thirty-one percent were also deemed oxidized or of poor chemical quality. This year, Flynn followed up with more bad news. Among 15 samples of extra-virgin olive oil from restaurant suppliers, one was adulterated with canola oil, and a whopping 60% failed to reach sensory and chemical standards defined by the term extra-virgin.
Last spring, in the hope of improving matters, the USDA invited olive-oil brands to comply voluntarily with its Quality Monitoring Program. But so far only one company — Pompeian, the second largest olive-oil bottler in the U.S. — has chosen to participate. To do so, Pompeian officials say, they have had to greatly increase the size of their quality-control department, spending “several hundred thousand dollars” for staffing, training, research and record keeping.
Some industry groups argue that monitoring simply isn’t feasible. The vast majority of olive-oil brands in supermarkets come from companies that don’t own a single olive tree. They obtain the oil from middlemen, who don’t necessarily get it directly from the grower (or, in most cases, growers). With so many hands in the vat, it’s tough to know when and where adulteration or spoilage occurs unless there’s an inspection at every step of the way. And let’s not forget about the shippers and retailers involved before that bottle ends up in your pantry — even the best oils will deteriorate if left in a hot truck or near a sunny window.